The Players We Watch, and How They Got There
By Tim Butterfield '12, Staff Writer
I’d like to put a hypothetical (and I repeat: hypothetical, implausible, completely-removed-from-reality, not-worth-getting-worked-up-about) situation on the table for consideration. Let’s say that Alex Vetras, Amherst’s star quarterback, does some soul-searching during the winter following last year’s amazing undefeated season. He thinks long and hard about what he wants to be doing for his senior season, and he finally decides that he wants to play for a different team. So he puts away his purple t-shirts and Amherst sweats and joins the football program at Williams College. Or even Notre Dame. But he goes somewhere else.

I can just envision the reactions on campus right now. Teammates — noticing Vetras’s absence from practices or having already heard the news — condemn the man for abandoning them. Fans question why he wanted to leave such a fantastic team and therefore begin to wonder if the team will be any good at all anymore. Students who don’t care a lick for competitive sports are confused and outraged by Vetras’ departure for an “inferior” school. And, on the other side of the spectrum, folks who have thought long and hard about the situation conclude that Vetras made a practical decision. After all, he may be getting more financial aid or setting himself up for a better post-graduate opportunity or moving to a school closer to the home base of the charity foundation he’s started.

The issue here is not about who’s right and who’s wrong. And, fortunately, the entire described situation is fictitious, so you need not think for a second about losing your team’s quarterback. But we can use this close-to-home, albeit hypothetical, scenario to try to get a grip on issues of team loyalty versus personal gain at elite levels of athletics.

The New York Yankees are my favorite team (but props to the Rangers for their first playoff series win in franchise history) and I follow the team’s trades and acquisitions pretty closely. Thus, you can imagine my surprise when Johnny Damon left the Red Sox to don the pinstripes in 2006. It’s hard to know the man’s motives for leaving one fantastic team for another, especially when his new team happened to be the archrival of his old one. If Damon was looking for the best opportunity to win a World Series, he’d have been just fine with either team. In fact, he was a crucial member of the 2004 World-Championship Red Sox team, essentially single-handedly winning Game 7 of the ALCS against, you guessed it, the Yankees.

Damon could have stayed with the team that embraced him and allowed him to fit in. The Sox had a team dynamic like none other and Damon was at the core of it. Instead, he went to the Bronx, where he was required to cut his hair, shave his face and get over his “idiot” act. Of course, Damon collected $20 million more than the Red Sox had paid him for his previous four-year contract, so that was, in all likelihood, a major factor in the decision.

But maybe not. Perhaps Damon had family in Manhattan or preferred the school system there for his kids. I really don’t know. In the end, Damon continued to be a fantastic player for the Yankees. Although he watched his former team win the 2007 Series from his living room, he held the trophy for himself as a 2009 Yankee while the Sox heard the news from afar after being embarrassingly swept in the first playoff round.

As a member of the Detroit Tigers this season, Damon made headlines for electing to stay with the Tigers — a team with no playoff hopes — instead of returning to the Red Sox, who offered to bring him back. Citing a desire to stay with the younger, inexperienced team in Detroit, Damon’s paternalistic devotion impressed many baseball fans of varying loyalties and dealt another emasculating blow to the Sox.

Damon has been with the good teams (New York, Boston) and the staggering ones (Kansas City, Detroit). He’s accepted all sorts of salaries and experienced highs and lows with each and every team.

Through it all, however, he’s maintained his all-out style of play and continues to perform at a high level. I respect that, but I’ve chosen to stop thinking about the moves he’s made throughout his career. After all, I will never really know why he decided to play where he played. As long as he stays classy in the public spotlight, that’s fine by me.

Countless superstars — LeBron James, Randy Moss, Cliff Lee and Tony Marx (I joke, I joke) — have made the news for their involvements in high-stakes signings, blockbuster trades and their pursuits of new opportunities. We follow these players closely and try to figure out what sparks their decisions.

Is it a money issue? I personally stand with my mouth agape at any sports-related salary higher than half a million, but that’s me. Certain players, however, demand the highest salary they can possibly secure, and the difference between, say, three and four million dollars is often a deal-breaker for them.

Other players, however, readily accept lower contracts in order to ensure that they can stay with the teams they love and choose to represent. Personally, I’m more inclined to respect those athletes — think Cal Ripken, Jr. or Albert Pujols — for their loyalty, but I don’t think I’m privy to the reasons that other players feel they need as much money as possible, even at the expense of their fan appreciation and public images. That’s not my business.

Maybe it’s the desire to win a championship at all costs. That’s why Roy Halladay is a Phillie and CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira play for the Yanks. It’s why exceptional high school athletes skip college and immediately shoot for the stars. It’s why the Miami Heat suddenly finds itself loaded with superstars.

In the end, though, unless we know these stars personally, we’ll never truly be aware of why they make their decisions. Even the most obnoxiously arrogant athletes realize that there’s more to their lives than the sport they play. Although they make careers out of running fast, throwing balls and lifting weights, it’s no secret that wealth and fame do not mean much in terms of long-term happiness and feelings of self-fulfillment. Wealth, fame, and toned bodies can fade in shockingly brief periods of time, and an athlete who depends solely on these things has nothing to fall back on.

Our athletic idols know this. We have to grant them the privacy they deserve for their decision-making. As closely connected to them as we may sometimes feel, they stay with or leave teams for reasons much closer to home than their fans, and that just cannot be faulted.

Enjoy each and every sporting event you watch this autumn, knowing that the players you see are performing before you for reasons that you will never truly know. But, as long as they respect the game, play hard and inspire you and those around you, you can safely cheer for them with all your heart.

Issue 06, Submitted 2010-10-20 16:40:54